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Posted at 6:09 PM ET, 11/18/2010

The NAEP scores problem

By Valerie Strauss

When you live by test scores, you run the risk of dying by them too -- or, at least, the policies that dictated their importance should.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan issued a statement Thursday after the release of 12th grade reading and math scores on the National Aassessment of Educational Progress, the test sometimes called “the nation’s report card,” that said in part:

"Today’s report suggests that high school seniors’ achievement in reading and math isn’t rising fast enough to prepare them to succeed in college and careers. Reading results have improved since 2005, but are still below the level of 1992. Math scores also show only incremental gains over four years ago.”

My colleague Nick Anderson reported that reading scores for 12th graders since 2005 rose two points on a 500-point scale, and math scores rose three points on a 300-point scale. The translation: Thirty-eight percent of seniors demonstrated proficiency in reading and 26 percent reached that level in math. Reading scores remain lower than they were in 1992. And there was essentially no progress in closing achievement gaps that separate white students from black and Hispanic peers.”

Closing the achievement gap was the goal of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law, which has defined the school reform movement for most of this decade and which was focused around a system of school assessments based on standardized tests.

Schools around the country scrambled to make sure kids could read and add, often to the exclusion of other basic subjects. Curriculum narrowed, cheating on testing increased, test prep became a dominant feature of the school week.

The Obama administration, also with a goal of closing the still-wide achievement gap, did not disrupt the NCLB regime, but rather extended some of its tenets.

Instead of suggesting that perhaps there is a problem with our education policies, Duncan said nothing of the sort. The rest of his statement said, somewhat inexplicably, that despite the bad news, the country would still meet Obama’s goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.

"They’ll only succeed if we challenge and support them to raise their academic performance and offer them the financial support they need to pay for college. The Obama administration is providing $40 billion over the next decade in Pell Grants for disadvantaged students. We are supporting states as they work together to raise standards to match college and career expectations. We have invested in states’ efforts to create data systems to ensure teachers and parents have the information they need to know how their students and schools are doing.

"With these supports and a commitment to challenging the status quo, we’re confident we’ll meet the President’s goal and provide our students with the education that meets their aspiration to complete college."

If the administration keeps the same education policies, that confidence seems to be based on air.

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By Valerie Strauss  | November 18, 2010; 6:09 PM ET
Categories:  Education Secretary Duncan, Standardized Tests  | Tags:  arne duncan, education secretary arne duncan, naep, naep scores, national assessment of educational progress, standardized tests, test scores  
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Not all tests are equal, Valerie. NAEP scores are the ones that can't be taught to. According to Harvard's Dan Koretz, that's not true of the NCLB data based on the state tests. If the NAEP results show that more progress was being made in the 1990s than has been made in the past decade under NCLB, both in closing the achievement gap and in improving student achievement on the things that NAEP tests, then you are right. At some point we have to ask, are the specific strategies being used across the country under NCLB not working?

Unprecedented amounts of federal and private dollars have been pumped into the accounability agenda --rewards and sanctions based on raising the state reading and math scores, handing schools over to outside private management firms and charter schools, and teacher proofing the curriculum. So you're right, at what point do we hold the designers of these strategies accountable? After all that's the purpose of NAEP. Its impossible to corrupt. Its a real reportcard on the strategies the nation is using.

The most disturbing aspect of this data is the failure to make any progress at all in closing the achievement gap. That, after all, has been the goal that has occupied so much of the rhetoric. It may be time to take a more serious look at the causes of the achievement gap and the ingredients necessary for narrowing it. The rhetoric from the architects of the past decade's reform strategies is beginning to wear thin. Anyone can point to exceptional examples to try to prove anything. But sooner or later, NAEP should be telling a different story. These are significant results.

Posted by: marksimon1 | November 18, 2010 7:35 PM | Report abuse

Before even studying the NAEP results, I can predict that reformers will call for firing more teachers as the solution to US educational woes.

Posted by: efavorite | November 18, 2010 9:25 PM | Report abuse

"Reading results...are still below the level of 1992."

When do we get to conclude that these aggressive, disruptive reforms (many of which began after the Reagan administration declared a crisis in education) are the source of the problem? The achievement gap was narrowing and students scores were improving throughout the seventies and eighties. What happened? "Reform" happened.

We know what the solutions are. Make it easier for high performing college students to enter the teaching profession without having to jump through inane education school hoops. Hire enough teachers so that the workload is reasonable rather than ridiculous. (It is not possible for a teacher to do an excellent job teaching five to six classes per day with thirty-five students in each class and, often, two or three different preps for those classes.) Maintain the facilities with enough desks, chairs, and books. (Don't waste money on technology that is not implemented properly. It's far better to provide students with excellent books that both they and their parents can read and follow each day's lesson in.) Provide additional social services (a la Jeffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone) for troubled students because teachers cannot be nurses, social workers, and truant officers, too.

We know what works, but this recent reform push isn't about doing what works. It's about destroying public education and privatizing it. It's about making money off of education. It's about widening the gap between the have's and the have not's by making sure that there is no way for a child without means to advance.

We know what they're doing. It's time for the public to say, "Enough is enough!" and demand that people in education get back to the purpose of their jobs -- to impart knowledge from one generation to the next!

Posted by: Jennifer88 | November 18, 2010 9:35 PM | Report abuse


You sound like an apologist for these lazy, incompetent teachers who just want a public handout (sarcasm). It's sad that people really believe those refrains. They must still be bitter about some teacher in their past. I blamed some of my teachers for my failures when I was in high school. Now I know that I was the one responsible for my failures. Go figure.

Posted by: stevendphoto | November 18, 2010 9:44 PM | Report abuse

There are two theories regarding the cause for the academic achievement gap (i.e. ethnoracial group differences in cognitive test scores).

1) The politically correct Boasian theory: This theory holds that all ethnoracial groups have the same level of innate intelligence, but due to racism, cultural differences, and socioeconomic differences, some groups unfairly do better than others. Sure, Asians appear to have higher IQs and higher math scores but it is just because their culture encourages studying. Sure, Blacks and Hispanics appear to have lower IQs and lower math scores but it is just because of racism, that their culture discourages studying, and that they often have to attend bad schools. After we institute more cultural enrichment programs so that all children have the same family environment and after we spend billions more on new charter schools and after we fire many more bad teachers, then we confidently predict that Asian, White, Hispanic, and Black students will all perform at the same level on IQ-tests and on academic achievement tests.

2) The politically incorrect Galtonian theory: This theory holds that because of human genetic diversity, ethnoracial groups have innate differences in IQ-type intelligence (Average IQ levels: Blacks ~85, Hispanics ~88, Whites ~100, and Asians ~106). Academic achievement tests like SAT, ACT and NAEP are cognitive tests, therefore they are all strongly influenced by the test takers' levels of general cognitive ability (IQ-type intelligence). Math ability and general intelligence are both highly heritable (i.e. strongly genetically determined) mental traits. Top experts (e.g. Professor John DeFries at Univ of Colorado and Professor Robert Plomin at Univ of London) have shown that the same genes that affect math ability also affect IQ-type intelligence (Plomin calls these cognition influencing genes "generalist genes"). This Galtonian theory predicts that, on average, Blacks and Hispanics will always be less intelligent than Whites and therefore they will always perform lower on cognitive tests such as math achievement tests, similarly this theory predicts that Asians will always be more intelligent and always perform higher on math achievement tests.

Ethnoracial group IQ differences readily explain NAEP math test results:
The new 2009 12th Grade NAEP Math scores show Whites with an average scale score of 161 (with standard deviation = 31). The other ethnoracial group scores are Blacks 131, Hispanics 138, and Asians 175. If these NAEP Math scores are transformed into standard scores (IQ-metric with 15 points = 1.0 SD and average of reference group = 100) then Asians 107, Whites 100, Hispanics 89, and Blacks 85. Well, gee whiz!! that is almost exactly what the group IQ differences would predict according to the Galtonian theory.

Prominent Galtonians include: Charles Murray, Arthur Jensen, Thomas Bouchard, Linda Gottfredson, Richard Lynn, Heiner Rindermann, John Derbyshire, and Robert Weissberg.

Posted by: rifraf | November 18, 2010 9:44 PM | Report abuse

Rifraf, you continue to ignore the confounders. Let's see, there are differences in-line with the racial groups accordingly:

1. breastfeeding initiation and duration

2. maternal age at first birth

3. number of subsequent births

4. duration between births

5. lead blood levels in infants / children

6. exposure to pollutants (wider variety) prenatally and postnatally (indoor too)

7. maternal (pregnant) antioxidant levels (i.e., ascorbic acid and NAC) and, following birth, infant / child levels

8. blood cotinine levels (maternal & child)

9. rates of very preterm birth

10. kitchen sink....income, maternal education level, family and neighborhood disorder, stress, born SGA, etc.

Well, that is a start anyway. While I have noted references for you before on the above mentioned matters, if you request, I will be happy to provide them again.

Posted by: shadwell1 | November 19, 2010 9:53 AM | Report abuse

The public schools do the same thing year after year so there should be no surprise that the real non fake-able test scores show no significant difference year after year.

Reality is that children that learn to love to read before entering the public schools will do well. How well a child will do in learning is determined and set in stone before a child enters public schools.

The only thing that changes yearly in the public schools is the promises of the politicians in the year when supposedly improvement will be seen. This year will always be after the current politician making these promises will be long gone from public office.

Posted by: bsallamack | November 19, 2010 11:23 AM | Report abuse

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. That is the state of the "reform" movement today. Once you remove the phoney (i.e. New York) state test results, what you end up with is a huge diversion of taxpayer dollars to private hands (TFA, KIPP, Kaplan) for no results. Where's the "accountablity?"

Posted by: mcstowy | November 19, 2010 11:34 AM | Report abuse

As rifrif's data indicates, the IQ scores match the NAEP scores so closely that it seems likely that they largely reflect the same thing. Given that researchers have never found an environmental manipulation that will reliably and lastingly increase IQ scores in children of school age and above, it is natural to conclude that all the educational reform efforts to raise NAEP scores will achieve little. And this is true whether you believe the racial IQ/NAEP gaps are due to genetic factors as rifrif does, to peri/prenatal factors as shadwell1 does, or to both.

Posted by: qaz1231 | November 19, 2010 11:57 AM | Report abuse

McStowy says, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result."

Yes, and that's exactly the same line I've heard coming from Obama and other reformers, yet it's exactly what they're doing when they push charters as the way of the future, even though, after 20 years, charters show no advantage over public schools.

This NAEP report also shows that the achievement gap persists:
Score gaps in reading persisted between White students and their Black and Hispanic peers (figure 5). Neither the 27-point score gap in 2009 between White and Black students, nor the 22-point gap between White and Hispanic students was signifi¬cantly different from the score gaps in previous assessment years.” p11

“Teach for America,” which concentrates in low income majority Black/Hispanic areas, has also been around for 20 years. This NAEP report, along with DC’s widening achievement gap, suggests that TFA is doing nothing postive to affect the achievement gap. Huge amounts of money go into supporting a program for already successful college grads that shows no results for the poor minority students it’s supposed to help. In fact, the program is being expanded.

The definition of insanity?

Posted by: efavorite | November 19, 2010 12:42 PM | Report abuse

Preventative measures when possible:

Am J Dis Child. 1987 Jan;141(1):50-4.

Antenatal hypoxia and low IQ values.
Naeye RL, Peters EC.

Posted by: shadwell1 | November 19, 2010 2:26 PM | Report abuse

"They’ll only succeed if we challenge and support them to raise their academic performance and offer them the financial support they need to pay for college."

Having worked with students in poor gang and drug invested neighborhoods - I think wrap arounds services would help the kids there more than Blarney Duncan's foolish statement that kids need to be challenged.

Blarney Duncan needs to find out the real needs of underperforming students instead of pretending that everything is related to challenge and test scores.

Posted by: jlp19 | November 19, 2010 7:20 PM | Report abuse

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